One of the most significant achievements of the late Steve Jobs was the creation of the iPod.
The iPod embodies early twenty-first century principles of design, technology, and consumerism. Owners carry their entire music libraries with them, and, using iTunes, create their own playlists and sequences.
As has been frequently noted, a consequence of the iTunes, iPod world is the death of the album. The creation of a coherent, multi-layered whole that is greater than the sum of its parts has died. Instead, we are left with episodic, fragmented, discordant soundbytes, where the individual whim triumphs over all. The playlist – generated by Genius or by the user – has replaced the album.
This phenomenon is being speedily replicated in the University world. The production of the academic monograph has been regarded as the pinnacle of scholarly achievement in the humanities. Yet few people read monographs from cover to cover. Popular, narrative-based works that repeat and reorder known information still sell well, but academic research is increasingly reliant on online journal articles.
These changes are perhaps emblematic of the postmodern condition. We can communicate more information to more people than ever before, yet we have less and less of consequence to say. We trawl the archives and create more and more inquisitive focus groups, yet have lost sight of a larger narrative that might save lives or simply make more people smile.
Yet before we give up on creativity, despairing the demise of the monograph or the album, it’s worth recalling the recent origins of these products. Albums as we know them are children of the 1960s, while monographs are a luxury, dating back no further than The Origin of Species.
Plenty of musicians, artists and writers have changed the way we think about ourselves in shorter pieces. Think the Communist Manifesto, or even Galatians 3:28. And the sciences have long recognised that the conference paper or research report has intellectual and practical significance that is not relative to length.
The rise of the online journal article, or the power point slide, will probably be eclipsed shortly by the blog, the wiki and the youtube broadcast. This is not a cause for despair (well, perhaps it is for educrats and the public servants charged with inventing metrics to govern research funding). What does matter is that humans do continue to think, read, write, communicate – stepping outside the predictable, the imaginable, and the individual into the cosmos of the unexpected, the unthought, and the reality of living and dying alongside billiions of other humans searching for something bigger than themselves.